Wednesday, September 27, 2017

'From first to last, I punished Laurens justly.'

Many of Georges Surdez's Foreign Legion stories strike me as having split personalities. At heart, many of them are essentially character studies. But knowing his pulp audience, Surdez always finds a way to resolve his character conflicts through combat situations. "Clay in Khaki" (The Big Magazine, 1935) is a good example of this. The first half of it hardly has action in it, describing the fatal incompatibility of Verlinden, a veteran German sergeant, and Laurens, a popular recruit from a higher class background than was typical for Legionnaires. The story's told largely from the point of view of their new commander, Lieutenant Chamber, who sees Laurens as a decent kid unjustly goaded into desertion, and eventual death, by Verlinden. His attitude toward Verlinden is mild, however, compared to that of Laurens' buddies, who are ready to tear the sergeant apart when Laurens' body is returned to base. Still, Surdez lets Verlinden tell his side of the matter. The veteran found Laurens conceited; the younger man "thought himself my superior" and openly made fun of the sergeant, undermining his authority. That might just be an authoritarian talking, but this is the Foreign Legion, where discipline is everything. Seeing Verlinden's point, but also seeing that his position under his command is no longer tenable, Chamber arranges for his transfer to Indo-China, accepting the sergeant's suggestion that he, Verlinden, apply for the transfer himself in order to save face. But before the transfer can be finalized, Chamber's unit must go out in pursuit of a strong force of bandits. In the middle of battle mutiny breaks out as men refuse to take orders from Verlinden, and Chamber finally has to disarm him in order to have any hope of rallying his men. Then comes the ironic twist. Mocked by the men and believing his career ruined, Verlinden decides to commit suicide-by-Berber, charging the enemy position armed only with his automatic pistol.

He was a true Legionnaire, in love with the spectacular and, his life being sacrificed, he granted himself the luxury of exacting admiration from the very Legionnaires who had laughed. To die was nothing -- if it meant that he would be remembered.

Inevitably he goes down in a hail of gunfire, but when some Berbers venture from their position to plunder the body, them men who had scorned Verlinden moments before now go berserk in defense of his corpse. "Verlinden's personality had fled wherever the spirit travels after death, but there remained his clay and his uniform," Surdez writes, "His head, taken as a trophy through the market places of desert villages, would be a reproach to his Legionnaires." By sacrificing himself for purely selfish reasons, Verlinden inadvertently wins the day for the Legion. The question of whether Verlinden was justified in his treatment of Laurens has been forgotten, proof that the story was more about Verlinden all along. Surdez doesn't really imply that Verlinden's conduct vindicates him, and his reluctance to pass final judgment is a nice touch from an author I've only rarely disliked.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

'Baal and Ashtaroth, they told people to raise hell, and the people done so.'

James Mitchell Clarke had a long career as a writer and educator, but only a short one in the pulps. He published nine stories in Adventure, plus one in the one-shot Adventure spinoff The Big Magazine, between 1927 and 1935, before devoting himself to a WPA project in the San Diego school system. One of those stories is the remarkable "Walls" (April 15, 1932). The remarkable thing about it is that it's a sort of debunking account of the biblical conquest of Jericho, as narrated by an immortal man. In what looks a lot like the opening of a series, we're introduced to our protagonists in modern-day Louisiana, sharing a bottle on the wall of a ruined fort. "Never -- even in the Louisiana swamps which are full of strange men -- had been people like these," thinks Jones, our POV character.

The broad shouldered one, with the shining black eyes and a beard which curled down his deep chest in black rings, had one huge hand over the bottle. The other, a slighter man, was plainly not a negro. Yet his skin was the color of chocolate; smooth and tight drawn; more like tanned leather than human flesh covering. His eyes, though only a few feet away, appeared to be looking across incalculable distance.

The strangers make friends with Jones and amaze him with tales of Jean Lafitte the pirate, told as if they knew the man. Amazing as that must sound, given that Lafitte flourished more than a century earlier, Belshar and Hovsep can top that easily. "We've seen some walls, Hovsep and me," says Belshar, the bearded one, who leaves Hovsep, the dark one, to tell of their role in the siege of Jericho. While "we follow the sea, Belshar and me .... once in awhile we find ourselves ashore and this was one of the times," Hovsep starts. Fugitives from the Persian Gulf, they became mercenary scouts for the Israelites under Joshua. In a dig at modern anti-semitism, Hovsep tells Jones, "It's maybe funny to you to think of [Jews] as fighting men. But they were -- a wild, hard, hairy lot, sleeping in tents, wondering where the next meal was coming from, scrapping with everybody they met; and licking 'em, too, mostly." Clarke doesn't soft-pedal Old Testament aggression. "Part of the Hebrew idea was to capture every town they came to and put the people out of the way," Hovsep recalls, "It saved trouble, and it was an order from their god." Iahweh, as Clarke calls that god, isn't bad compared to Ashtaroth and Baal, the dominant deities in Jericho, and their worshipers. "Them Canaanites were a scummy lot, take my word," Hovsep recalls. The priests of Ashtaroth take young women by force and make them temple prostitutes. The priests of Baal take young boys for human sacrifice. The family of Rahab, the biblical heroine, is victimized many times over. In Clarke's backstory, Rahab herself is taken from her family, while three of her brothers are chosen for sacrifice. Twenty years before Joshua's siege, Hovsep and Belshar, then friends of Rahab, made themselves personae non grata in Jericho by attempting to rescue her brothers, saving two of the three and leaving Rahab swearing that someday "my turn" will come.

Their past experience in Jericho recommends our heroes to Joshua for an infiltration mission, during which the meet and older, hardened Rahab, who sees "my turn" coming with the arrival of "the Evening Wolf," Joshua. She tells Hovsep and Belshar about a weak spot, caused by storm damage, in Jericho's strong walls. They relay this crucial intelligence to Joshua, who has just gotten his legendary marching orders, so to speak, from "the Lord's captain." "It isn't that I don't think it will work," Joshua tells them, "I don't doubt Iahweh. But I always like to help him when I can." He sets our heroes to work further undermining the wall until he has a change of heart. "I have not put my trust in Iahweh," he laments, "If we go through with this, His face will be turned away from His people." But Hovsep and Belshar decide they'll keep at it in secret, determined to do all they can to help Rahab get her revenge. Clarke has Hovsep tell what happens next in nicely ambiguous fashion. Did a miracle actually happen, or had "Joshua'd figured the balance better than he knew" when he put our heroes to work earlier? Whatever the cause, a slaughter ensues, but Rahab and her family are saved. Jones is so caught up in the story, virtually smelling the smoke of the burning city, that he doesn't notice at first that his new friends have disappeared, but not without leaving behind evidence that they actually had been there.

As you may have noticed from the excerpts, the gimmick of the story is that Belshar and Hovsep talk and tell their story in the vernacular of 1932. Maybe that's just Jones translating it in his own head, but I think it effectively establishes Clarke's immortals as eternal common men, neither archaically alien nor decadently refined. If I recall right, there was a sort of fad for this sort of writing in historical fiction -- F. Scott Fitzgerald used it in his experiments in the genre -- but "Walls" survives whatever faddishness there was to it. While it adds an irreverent note to a Bible legend, it also gives the tale a fresh sense of immediacy and empathy as Clarke underscores the horrors of Canaanite idolatry. Most importantly, Belshar and Hovsep sound like cool guys with many more stories to tell, and it would be a shame if this turned out to be their only appearance.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Gunfight with the Glidden brothers

1955 was a late time to publish your first pulp story. In the western field, Popular Publications had converted a couple of titles to magazine format, but would soon kill them in favor of "true" adventures in the sweat genre. Thrilling had done away with most of its line at the end of 1953, leaving the most popular western pulps of the day, the monthly Texas Rangers and the biweekly Ranch Romances, as well as the quarterly Triple Western. The other surviving western titles came from Columbia, long considered the bottom of the publishing barrel, and Stadium, as the pulp arm of Martin Goodman's empire called itself then. Clayton Fox made his debut in a Stadium title, the June 1955 Western Short Stories, with "Tough, He Said He Was." It's a pretty basic character piece, the idea being that Bob Smith resents his mentor, Big John McLeod but gains a greater appreciation of him, and a greater sense of responsibility for his legacy, after McLeod dies in a freak accident. "You don't like a man you're forced on with a gun," the narrator observes, and that's how it is with Bob, for whom McLeod's hardscrabble ranch is the only alternative to reform school. After McLeod's demise, Bob falls under suspicion when a few cows are discovered missing from the older man's humble herd. At the same time, Bob feels the temptation to sell the rest of the herd and keep the proceeds rather than use them to pay McLeod's debts. Destiny points Bob toward a showdown with the real rustlers, the no-account Glidden brothers. Their in-jokey presence is probably the most noteworthy thing about Fox's debut, though I wonder how many 1955 readers recognized the joke. The Gliddens of the story are named Luke and Pete. The Gliddens of western pulp fame are Fred and John, who wrote under the names "Luke Short" and "Peter Dawson" respectively. Get it? I'm sure that the outlawry of the fictional Gliddens is meant as no reflection on the real-life authors, but maybe the name-dropping put a helpful smile on editor Robert O. Erisman's face just the same. The best thing about this little story is its modesty of scope. The big gunfight ends with no one dead, the stolen cattle reclaimed, and the Gliddens' cabin shot up until Bob's rifle barrel is too hot to touch. Fox introduces a potential love interest, but she never becomes more than that. We don't get the standard closing paragraph in which the hero thinks dreamily about the girl, because this story is more concerned with showing how Big John McLeod's lessons took. That's enough for this ten-page story to feel like a little change of pace. Fox published four more stories in Stadium pulps over the next two years before Stadium expired and he focused on novels -- though for all I know he's also the K. Clayton whose one and only western pulp story appeared in this same issue. The market for western short stories was drying up, but the pulps still gave aspiring pros an opportunity to learn how to write narratives that could sell.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

'The Anglo-Saxon is the only race that has developed the art of fighting without weapons.'

This howler comes from Gordon MacCreagh's "The Crawling Script" from the September 30, 1923 issue of Adventure. While Chinese martial arts remained largely unknown to Americans for nearly fifty years more after MacCreagh wrote, I would still have expected him to be aware of Japanese judo of jiu-jitsu, of which Americans had been aware since at least the turn of the 20th century. That's what makes this particular passage inexcusable, though I must note that no less an Oriental "expert" than Sidney Herschel Small makes a similar, and perhaps less forgivable error in his 1932 story "The River on the Sky," in which Japanese characters regard fist fighting as something uniquely western or Anglo-American.  As a whole, "Crawling Script" has the usual mixed messages we should expect from pulp stories. MacCreagh deals in stereotypes as a matter of course, but at the same time his Gurkha adventurer Bir Jung is presented as an equal partner to the story's American hero, and the actual instigator of the story's treasure hunt. Bir Jung is superstitious and often vicious, but MacCreagh's overriding message, implicit in the ending's hint of further adventures for the pair, is that he and Westerman, the American, are brother adventurers under the skin, despite the American bridge-builder's dismissive attitude toward the entire concept of "adventure." I ought to note as well that while MacCreagh may mean to give Anglo-Saxons credit for a uniquely clean style of fighting, he also notes at the start of the very next paragraph that Westerman "broke all the rules of civilized warfare in the first two minutes." The American grows squeamish occasionally, turning his head away when Bir Jung guts an enemy in a climactic duel, but comes across overall as a pretty hard guy, almost hard-boiled in his blithely cynical attitude. MacCreagh's better known for stories set in Africa, but this change-of-pace piece has its moments, both bad and good.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

SINGAPORE SAMMY: 'Save the bother,' Lauzanno snapped, 'I'll shuck my own clothes off.'

For Singapore Sammy's last bow (and only cover feature) in Short Stories, George F. Worts reverts to the formula of the second Sammy story. As in "Cobra," "Octopus" (May 10, 1931) makes much of its villain's resemblance to the title animal. Pierre Lauzanno isn't a half-caste, but he's nearly as bad in his author's eyes, "American born, of Portuguese ancestry and Oriental upbringing." While Worts mixes metaphors by giving Lauzanno "the arms of a gorilla," he is a moral octopus in the writer's eyes, "a man who would indulge in any form of murder to accomplish an object." "Octopus" also reproduces the earlier story's motif of partnership between a properly "hard" man and someone whose addictive nature makes him unfit for the life of a South Seas adventurer. The difference this time is that Sammy isn't one of the partners. Instead, back in the burg that gave him his nickname, he encounters a mismatched pair at a crooked card game. One of them, Kelvin Broome, "the Viking," is just like Sammy's protege from the earlier story, only more belligerent; he can't lay off the cards or the booze. The other, "the buccaneer," is virtually another version of Sammy Shea. The improbably named Lucifer "Lucky" Jones will end up being Singapore's sidekick in future stories; he proves a resourceful companion here as the men join forces to avenge Broome, who gets knifed in an alley after the card game breaks up violently. They mean to secure Broome's map of a sunken treasure; finding the treasure, they hope to send it to the dead man's poor family on an Arizona orange grove, to help his sister go to art school. These are the same guys who go around boasting of how "hard" they are, and who we're told are hard by the author. Mush!

Anyway, Singapore and Lucky catch up with Lauzanno and prove just how hard they are by torturing him into giving up the map, with unplanned assistance from an actual octopus that attaches itself to the villain while our heroes are dunking him in the sea. In the middle of this there's a weird moment when Sammy "placed the flat of his hand against a davit and looked at Lauzanno dreamily. Those who had experience knew that this was by far the most dangerous, most sinister expression that the red-haired young man used." I'm sure Worts only means that Sammy's on the brink of going psycho on his antagonist, but given the context of torture, and maybe because I'm a 21st century reader, I can't help reading something even more sinister into our hero's dreamy expression. Despite that, Lauzanno proves a tough egg until the octopus intervenes and makes him beg for mercy. Shay and Jones then make the mistake of letting Lauzanno live.

"Octopus" is the longest of the early Sammy stories, but the way it breaks into nearly equal halves  suggests that Worts (or the editor of Short Stories) may have slammed two novelettes together. The second half of the story becomes a tag-team match as Lauzanno hooks up with the infamous Bill Shay, Sammy's reprobate father, whom the villain tracks down with an alacrity that puts all of Sammy's previous efforts to shame. Things went badly for the old man after we left him at the end of "The Pink Elephant." Held responsible for the sacred title creature's death, Bill was tortured by angry Siamese authorities. Already poised to benefit from Sammy's death according to the will of Sammy's grandfather, Bill, who was previously amused to lead the boy on wild-goose chases, is now out for blood. He and Lauzanno lay in wait while Sammy and Lucky hunt for the treasure, then pounce when the younger men go down in diving suits to retrieve the sunken gold. Worts is good at selling every encounter between Shay the elder and Shay the younger as a big moment, especially when Sammy is shocked to discover Dad in a diving suit attacking him alongside Lauzanno. There's also a very cinematic moment when, in the midst of another intervention by a real octopus, Sammy catches one last glimpse of Bill before the old man zips up to the surface to escape the carnage that consumes Lauzanno, and from which our heroes barely escape. It's an exciting finish to a story that's just slightly overlong, though by modern standards the extra length is put to relatively good use building up Singapore and Lucky's friendship.

From here Worts took Singapore Sammy to Argosy, where he debuted in an eponymous serial in December 1931. As for me, I'll be going back to where I discovered Sammy, in the invaluable Big Book of Adventure Stories, before proceeding to items from my own collection. Of his three major characters -- Peter the Brazen and Gillian Hazeltine are the others -- Worts stuck with Sammy the latest. The conclusion of the 1936 Sammy serial Murderer's Paradise was the effective end of the author's pulp career.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

'He said politely that North Japan was notoriously unhealthy during the Winter season.'

Sidney Herschel Small was one of the pulp writers I discovered in the pages of a contemporary slick magazine, Collier's Weekly. He specialized in East-West encounters, whether they involved Americans exploring the Far East or Americans exploring their local Chinatowns. His Collier's stories don't exactly lack action, but Small's pulp writing is naturally more energetic, if no more or less accurate in their representations of Asia. "The River of the Sky" (Adventure, April 15, 1932) is set in modern Japan, but from Small's descriptions you'd think that Commodore Perry had only just arrived. Apart from the presence of the American businessman hero, A-1 agent Andrew Moffat, aka "Hairy Foreigner," and his rival, one of those dreaded half-castes, you'd think the country was still in Shogun days. Of course, if you're going to set your story in an exotic place, the place had better be exotic, however aggressive Japan actually was about modernizing. Small gives his readers a vivid if not salacious account of the kammairi procession, in which worshippers, despite the wintry conditions, run naked, or as nearly naked as they dare,to the temple of the moon god. From that spectacular starting point, he gets to the meat of his story as Moffat repels assassins sent by his half-caste rival and rescues an elderly man from becoming collateral damage. He takes the old man in to warm him up and make sure of his health, and learns that they have a common enemy in the half-caste. Kagawa Omura once was a big man in this town before George Yakahira, the half-caste, ruined him. Kagawa's daughter, descended from samurai, is now a mere servant in Yakahira's household, and that is one insult too many for the proud old man. This sets up a situation I've seen before in pulp fiction, though I may well have seen it in a later story by another of the Oriental story specialists like Walter C. Brown. The idea is that the broken old timer gets his foot in the door, the better to carry out some baroque revenge plot, by offering the villain the last precious thing in his possession. In this case, the River of the Sky is a beautifully crafted ceramic bowl that any collector, or anyone in the export-import trade, would treasure. The payoff, of course, is that this final tribute from vanquished to victor is -- in this case pretty much literally -- a poisoned chalice. The gimmick in Small's story is that Kagawa drinks from the bowl before Yakahira does, so the drink couldn't be poisoned -- could it? I haven't read enough mystery stories to know whether the explanation Kagawa gives at the end, which involves treating the bowl with two fresh layers of glaze, the first water-soluble, exposing a poison layer for the second tea-drinker, had been done before. It's the sort of cute ploy that's okay to close a relatively unambitious short story from a writer who's done much better in my own limited experience. Apparently Small had a series of stories in Adventure about the A-1 company, or so I infer from the way he drops names of Moffat's colleagues as if readers should recognize them. I'd be willing to read more to whether Small made anything of the more compelling story of Japan's modernization and its consequences for the rest of the world.